Consolidators purchase tickets directly from the airlines at specially negotiated rates, and then resell them to travel agents or consumers for prices 20 to 70 percent lower than published fares. You'll often find the best discounts on international tickets.
As with airline sale fares, these lower prices often carry more restrictions. When you purchase through a consolidator, you may not be eligible for frequent flier miles or advance seat selection, and you won't have much flexibility to make changes to your itinerary without paying significant change fees. Consolidators also tend to have limited staff, so customer service may be minimal. But these restrictions may be worth it in exchange for a rock-bottom fare.
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Tips for Using a Consolidator
1. Before booking with any consolidator, do your homework to make sure it's a reputable company. Check for memberships in trade organizations such as the United States Air Consolidators Association (USACA), American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA), International Air Transport Association (IATA) or United States Tour Operators Asociation (USTOA).
We also recommend checking the company's reputation with the Better Business Bureau.
2. Shop around carefully to make sure you are getting the bargain you think you are. Fares vary even among consolidators. Make sure the price you are quoted includes all applicable taxes and departure fees. Sometimes you will do better with short-term promotional fares from the airlines, and the restrictions will probably be similar. And don't forget to check out any discount airlines serving your destination.
3. The tickets you purchase from consolidators may not be eligible for frequent flier mileage. Verify eligibility with the airline and consolidator before purchasing the ticket. Some consolidators allow you to enter frequent flier mile information when making your reservation.
4. To protect yourself, always use a major credit card to purchase your airfare. If there is any problem obtaining a valid ticket, you will then have some recourse for denying payment through your credit card company.
5. Confirm your reservation both before and after purchasing your ticket. If the airline can't confirm your reservation, obtain a record locator number from the consolidator. If it still can't be confirmed, do not buy the ticket. Get a seat reservation when talking with the airline and make sure you have a confirmed seat and are not wait-listed or reserved.
6. Ask plenty of questions. What happens if you miss your plane or your flight is canceled? What if you need to alter your itinerary? Make sure you obtain clear and accurate information from your consolidator regarding all policies and fees for ticket cancellations, changes, refunds, reticketing and expiration dates -- and then verify these with the airline.
7. If possible, purchase your tickets in advance. If you run into problems, you don't want to be scrambling at the last minute.
Finding a Consolidator
Here is a short list of consolidators that offer fares to the public. (Many consolidators only sell to travel agents.) It is by no means comprehensive. This is a competitive industry and turnover is high, so research your consolidator carefully before you book.
Students can also try STA Travel and StudentUniverse.com. And for all travelers, don't forget about the Sunday travel sections of major newspapers -- they're full of ads from consolidators.
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--updated by Sarah Schlichter